I have been fortunate in my career to have participated in or to lead over 20 scientific research cruises. This one is different… and it is because of COVID-19.
The planning and organization leading up to a cruise is an intense process. Being at sea there is no possibility to just pop into the store, be it marine hardware or grocery, to get what you need. So, the packing and planning for a typical cruise is very deliberate and organized. When we were asked to deploy in September instead of November, the entire packing process was accelerated and squeezed into a just a few months. But the process got completed, 20 participants cleared the medical requirements to deploy so that we have a full scientific complement, and here we are sitting on the RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer in Port Hueneme California.
The timeframe for embarking was pushed up significantly because we are sailing to Antarctica from California, not the usual Punta Arenas Chile. Not surprisingly, most countries are not keen on foreign nationals (aka potential COVID risks) flying into the country. This added over a month of steaming and two port stops before heading to the Antarctic. Oh, and there is also the 14 days of quarantining on the ship before ever leaving port in the first place. Currently, we are waiting on the results from the second of three rounds of COVID testing which took place after transiting on the ship from San Francisco to Port Hueneme. (We were happy that all were negative for the first COVID test in San Francisco). When we docked yesterday at an otherwise empty pier in Port Hueneme, the doctor had rolled up on the dock in a small pickup truck and had hand-carriable tool cases filled with swabs for a nasal COVID test, vials and personal protective equipment. One by one we filed down the gangplank, off the boat, and got our brains tickled. We all cried, some of us more than others.
While we wait on the results of testing round 2, we started unpacking all the equipment that we so tediously organized and packed back at our home institutions. This is our last chance to make sure that we have everything we need. Again, this time it is different. If we have forgotten something, we cannot just run off the ship while in port because we cannot risk being exposed to COVID-19. The US Antarctic program has an amazing support staff that can help us get items, but even if get things to the boat, they have to be quarantined for a few days to make sure no active virus can make it onto the boat. While sequestered, we are still taking all the needed precautions known to reduce the risk of transmission: wearing face masks, social distancing and washing hands. Only once we are out at sea, after more than two weeks of quarantining and three negative COVID tests, will be able to relax some of these measures.
Nevertheless, the science crew is excited, despite the bouts of anticipation and relief. The Kocot lab eagerly set up their microscopes in a lab where they will spend many hours sorting material, even though we are still many weeks away from sampling. Most of the researchers have brought analyses, papers or other work-related projects from home. During our time quarantining at Port Hueneme, which will last until October 8th, we will continue to prep the ship for science, but we will also finish up projects that we brought from home. One other point of excitement it the opportunity to sit and talk science with colleagues and banter ideas back and forth. After 6 months of COVID isolation, when most of our collegial interactions have been restricted to Zoom or WebEx, the in-person discussions will be welcome. Of course, there will be breaks for an occasional card game or some Dungeons & Dragons, or reading that book one has been putting off.
Dr. Ken Halanych